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Practicing Vipsana and working with thoughts


Photography: Ronit Cohen

The inspiration for this list is an amazing talk given by a wonderful teacher named Shayla Catherine, at the Vipsana retreat of the Tovna association, in March 2010. I have included the summary of the talk at the end of the list.

I have known Shayla for close to ten years, and the way she teaches the Dhamma was an important turning point in my personal practice. Although I owe a great debt to Goenka, who was my first meditation teacher, and the one who opened up a whole world to me that I was unaware of, I felt after more than two years of practicing in this tradition, that I was missing something. I also suffered from severe back pain during the retreats, and observing the sensations of the body only intensified the pain. I also felt that the emphasis on observing sensations as a central and main object is a bit limited. Added to this was the rigidity of thought and dogmatism that I did not like. I felt that this tradition, with all the appreciation I had for it, no longer suited what I needed and how I understood the Buddhist path.


But until I sat in a retreat with a question, I didn't really know what I was missing. Meeting her changed the way I practiced. Suddenly I was sitting at a vipsana retreat in silence, but instead of listening to the same Goenka recordings, and instead of sitting and practicing over and over again the same technique, in which the body is systematically scanned from the tip of the head to the tips of the fingers, I learned a slightly different "vipsana" practice: Inquisitive, open, expansive, amused, happy and on the move. The first retreat with her was life changing number two (the first was in the first retreat). Every time Shayla spoke, whether it was during the amazing talks or during the questions and answers, I felt that she was speaking directly to me, and was answering exactly what arose in my mind at that moment. All this, without me asking her personally. Shayla is also very connected to the Buddhist texts, and maybe this is one of the reasons why my connection with her is strong. She always incorporates in her teaching passages and explanations from the Suttas or from the Hervadic exegetical tradition. I know that for her too, the Buddhist texts are a clear map of reality and the path to liberation, and not a moldy and dry text from a distant era. She is also one of the teachers who is able to describe the mental reality with the clarity and precision of a "mind surgeon".

Since that retreat, and after studying the Buddha's sermons became a significant part of my spiritual path, the practice of "vipsana" became a comprehensive and much deeper practice than a specific meditative technique. For me, Vipsana, or rather the practice of dhamma, is any meditative technique, mindset, study and lifestyle that evokes a clear and clear vision of reality. Everything that enables the weakening of clinging and the abandonment of states of consciousness that are not beneficial to a life of freedom, is called "vipsana" for me. Vipsana is an investigation into the nature of reality, which consists of body, sensations, feelings, emotions, thoughts, perceptions and all other psycho-physical phenomena, whether it is walking, sitting, standing, lying down, reading, speaking or silence.

Practicing Dhamma means developing and cultivating a clear vision of reality. Developing and cultivating a clear vision of the present moment. It is a training in direct and unbiased observation of the way we behave in the world. Training that allows slowly abandoning obscuring and unhelpful states of consciousness and developing beneficial states of consciousness for a clear, peaceful, loving, relaxed and open life much more than we were used to before.

In the astonishing conversation, the summary of which I provide at the end of the list, Shayla talks about different types of thoughts. The description of the different types is not for intellectual needs, but for the purpose of a clear vision of consciousness, its complexity, its tendencies and its nuances. The Buddha instructs us to pay attention to what is happening in each and every moment, when he offers several points of observation. One of them is awareness of the variety of its phenomena. One of the phenomena that causes us great suffering is what we call "thoughts". Not all thoughts are problematic. There are many thoughts that are helpful, liberating and empowering. They should be developed and cultivated, for example, thoughts of compassion, renunciation, joy and love are useful and liberating thoughts that open the heart but there are many thoughts that do not contribute to us at all. On the contrary, they evoke restlessness, a feeling of insignificance, anxiety, fear and detachment from what is really happening. A clear observation of these kinds of thoughts and their uncompromising investigation, allow us to loosen our grip on them, if only a little. Investigating thoughts allows us to loosen our belief in their truth and allow them to appear and disappear, without taking them too seriously.

There are several ways to observe thoughts: (1) Identifying the appearance of a thought in consciousness by mental score.That is, every time a thought arises, we mentally state: "thought". In this kind of observation, called in the Buddhist tradition "mental noting", we develop attention to what is happening in the mind from moment to moment. This way of observing does not examine the content of the thought but only recognizes that a "thought" has appeared (and disappeared). This observation is helpful when our attention is not sharp and clear enough, although sometimes we choose this kind of inquiry even when our concentration and attention are strong.

(2) Observing the nature of thought. Even in this observation we do not investigate the content of the thought. Since the nature of all thoughts is similar (they are temporary and we have no real control over them), the content is not relevant in this context. One of the most useful ways, in my opinion, of observing the nature of thought is by raising certain questions from time to time. These are not questions about which we "think" or wait for an answer, but rather questions that are "thrown" into the space of consciousness. For example: What is a thought? Where does it come from and where is it going? What is her nature? From time to time, we can ask this question in our inner speech and let it resonate within us.

(3) Another mode of observation, and this is the observation that Shayla spoke of in that wonderful Dhamma talk, this Observation that examines the thoughts while trying to identify what types of thoughts arise in our consciousness again and again.This observation, unlike the other two, examines also, and this is a keyword, the content of thoughts.This kind of inquiry tries to identify our main thought patterns. A clear vision of the thought tendencies is the way to slowly free ourselves from those thoughts that are not helpful and that cause us suffering and distress. This type of observation examines and asks: Do thoughts of a certain type repeat themselves over and over again? Are these thoughts helpful to us or cause discomfort and suffering? When we recognize the thought patterns, we can work with the thoughts by reflecting on their effectiveness:  Should we really allow this thought to receive attention and consideration? What if we just let a thought lead us nowhere useful? Recognition allows us to decide what to do with a certain type of thought after it repeats itself too many times.

We can also examine the root of the thoughts: what is the source of a certain type of thoughts?

In her talk, Sheila described three roots of thoughts. This is a classification from the interpretive tradition (ie it does not appear in the Suttas), but this description is very helpful in my opinion, and allows a direct investigation of the mind and its tendencies.

In the Theravada interpretation, the roots of thoughts are divided into: (1) Thoughts originating from desire and longing (tanhà). (2) Thoughts originating from perceptions and opinions (ditthi). (3) thoughts originating in comparability (màna).

Photography: Adi Hellman

Here is a summary of Shayla Catherine's amazing talk called: "How to work with thoughts" [1]

There are different types of thoughts. The ability to see which thought appears at different moments, allows us to work with them accurately and correctly. Here are the different types:

  1. planning (planning): Some of these plans make sense: planning when to shower; Planning life and planning the lives of others... there are necessary plans, but there are plans that are a type of obsessive thoughts. It's okay to plan, but I should limit the number of times I plan something (3 times is enough..?)

  2. assumptions/assumptions (assumption): assumptions we make from hearing something. We build a story from a segment of reality, and imagine things based on our preconceptions and assumptions about the person or the situation. These assumptions are often incorrect. The question we need to ask, Shayla says, is: is our thought correct? Are we seeing the whole picture?

  3. preparation/rehearsal (rehearsing): Before a certain meeting, for example, we plan what will be said, what will be said to us, etc. There is no end to describing a future state. In most cases, even though we plan the course of the conversation, in the moment of truth we don't say what we planned. Is it more important to think about what our intention is? What would we like to convey in conversation, instead of repeating over and over an imaginary conversation.

  4. dream in daylight (day dreaming): In day dreaming, we are completely disconnected from the present moment. There is something very pleasant but misleading. Although it seems to us that we are in control, since we decide what to dream about, it is an unreal control, which disconnects us from reality.

  5. Judgment/Rating/Comparison (judging/ranking/comparing): In comparisons and judgments we lower or raise ourselves compared to others. Wisdom and intelligence is dynamic. A person can say words of wisdom or clarify a certain thing in a certain situation, and in another subject he lacks insight. Each of us is an expert on a certain subject (therefore the judgment does not fully correspond to reality).

  6. Thoughts on a fix (fixing): Our attempt to fix things. It can be an obsession: an attempt to control reality and how things are going. Thoughts about fixing things often stem from the thought: "If only I had so and so, I would be happy, or everything would be fine." Is this really true?

Thoughts can be helpful and enjoyable, but when thoughts are driven by desire, opinions and comparison they can lead us to unhelpful places. They once asked a Dharma teacher how he would describe the world today. His answer was:

Lost in thought.

Most of us often just get lost in the stream of thoughts. The meditative training guides us to pay attention to thoughts and the thought process. You can develop helpful thoughts and helpful intentions: compassionate thoughts, the decision to let things go, the intention to be present. These are thoughts that are useful for practice. The goal is to let go of unhelpful thoughts and develop the inner space for helpful thoughts. Thoughts are our way of sustaining the self. How many of our thoughts are about us? How many thoughts strengthen us or weaken us? Don't thoughts exhaust us?


"Rest in natural great peace this exhausting mind. Beaten helpless by karma and neurotic thoughts; Like the relentless fury of the pounding waves in this infinity ocean of samasara.” [Nyushu Ken Rinpoche]

[1] From Shaila Catherine's talk: How to Work with Thoughts.  Thursday March 2010.

Written by Dr. Keren Arbel, who accompanies the development of the curriculum of IKIGAI

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